As residents in Detroit and across the state struggle to pay their water bills, newly introduced legislation aims to make water more affordable in Michigan.
BridgeDetroit hosted a Community Conversation Oct. 17 to bring residents together with Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown and Detroit Democrats State Sen. Stephane Chang and State Rep. Donavan McKinney to discuss the wide-ranging proposal.
The bill package evolved from months of engagement from a coalition of lawmakers, advocates and water system operators. It calls for an income-based water affordability fund that water utilities could tap to lower bills for low-income customers – modeled after Detroit’s recently implemented LifeLine water affordability program. The bills seek a new $2 monthly fee for water customers across the state to go into an affordability fund, a ramped up notification process for residents at risk of being disconnected over nonpayment, as well as protections for tenants. At least one official in Macomb County is challenging the plan, arguing counties should be able to opt out of having water customers pay the $2 monthly fee.
Proponents say the legislation would address the issue of unaffordable water that persists across Michigan — in suburbs, cities and rural communities. Since 1980, the average cost of water service in the state — drinking water, sewage and storm water costs — increased 188% when adjusted for inflation, according to researchers from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the consulting firm Safe Water Engineering.
In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 317,000 households across Michigan were behind on their water bills.
“We’ve had a long journey when it comes to water affordability,” said Chang, who represents Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck and sections of Warren, Madison and Hazel Park.
“During the pandemic and always, people need access to water,” added Chang, during the talk at the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation. “The pandemic shined a light for way more people than ever on how important water is.”
McKinney, the first Black person elected to represent Macomb County in the state Legislature, represents northeast Detroit, Center Line and parts of Warren. Challenges faced by his constituents, he noted, are similar “no matter what side of Eight Mile you live on.”
Nine years ago this month, the United Nations sought to intervene in the conflict over water shutoffs in Detroit as they escalated amid the city’s financial crisis as a tool for collecting outstanding debts, calling it a violation of human rights.
“Water is a human right,” he said. “Nobody on this planet can survive without it, not even the planet itself.”
Now that the water affordability legislation has been introduced, Chang said she’s hoping hearings will soon be held in both the House and Senate.
She said a lot of education will be needed to ensure people across the state – including where some elected leaders are expressing concern – to “ensure that they know how much public support that there is for these bills” and that people need help in every part of the state.
“This isn’t just a Detroit issue,” she said. “(Beyond Detroit) we have to make sure that all of the other folks know that their districts – including Republican districts – have water affordability issues.”
Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller is among the early critics of the plan. In a statement after the bills were introduced, Miller said counties not interested in paying into the affordability fund should have the ability to opt out.
Brown clapped back, noting Miller is a drain commissioner who doesn’t create rates.
“Those of us that are in utilities and communities, elected officials that are running communities and trying to keep water affordable, we create rates,” he said. “This opting out is divisional language. These water pipes in Michigan, 60 percent of the state, they don’t know any boundaries. They don’t know Oakland from Macomb County. You don’t get to opt out. I take offense to that.”
Despite some of the early opposition, Chang said she believes there will be a lot of buy-in for the bills, since seven months of work went into their development. The legislation, she noted, factors in drinking, sewage and stormwater costs to arrive at the affordable rates, including for customers in the city of Detroit.
“Are we going to get every single person? Probably not,” she said. “But my hope is that we’ll build as much support as we need to get the bills passed. I’m hopeful we can get both Democrats and Republicans to support this.”
The status of water shutoffs in Detroit
After more than three years, Detroit resumed water shutoffs in August for customers who owe more than $5,000 and are not enrolled in a payment plan.
DWSD began by targeting customers for service interruptions who owed the most and live in middle and high income areas.
“Every Detroit resident has an opportunity not to see a service interruption if they simply ask for help. Just raise your hand and say, ‘I want to be in the (LifeLine) program,’” Brown said. “If you don’t fit the income qualifications, we have what’s called the 10-30-50 payment program for high income earners, you could be making $100,000 … can’t make your payment and get into a payment plan.”
Lifeline offers fixed monthly rates for DWSD customers ranging from $18 to $56 based on the household income and water use. Of those enrolled, about 87% are receiving an $18 monthly bill.
But Brown said there are customers, including one in a quarter of a million dollar home in East English Village and other customers in Sherwood Forest and Palmer Woods, with thousands in outstanding debt who have refused to pay or enter into a payment plan, “so they were subject to shut off.”
“When they don’t pay, the bad debt gets passed on to people who can least afford it (into rates the next year),” he said. “If you can afford to pay, you need to pay. We are not going after any low-income customers.
“We knocked on 50,000 doors. There’s not a low-income program or water residential program in this country that has 28,000 (households) – that’s approximately three people per household – enjoying the benefits of a moratorium and being on an $18 (per month) payment plan.”
Brown said of the residents in the LifeLine plan, about 6,000 are behind on payments or have not made any payments, but they are not subject to having their water shut off.
Where can Detroiters find customer service centers?
Brown said DWSD is leasing its former west side and east side customer service centers to Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency to deliver services out in the community.
“We heard you loud and clear,” Brown said. “When we came out of COVID, there’s still a need to have face-to-face interaction.”
Both the east and west side centers have been open for over a year from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and are high traffic with both pre-scheduled and walk-in appointments, a spokesperson for Wayne Metro confirmed.
The west side center, 15600 Grand River, and east side center, 13303 East McNichols, offer in-person enrollment for the LifeLine Plan as well as wraparound services including food, housing, utility and job placement assistance.
DWSD’s Downtown Customer Service Center has a kiosk available during business hours for payments and other walk-up services, as needed. Since 2020, DWSD has transitioned its customer service functions to a Customer Self-Service Portal and voice-activated phone for payments, account assistance, start or stop water service, real estate closing reads, entering a payment plan, and more options. DWSD also attends community events and resource fairs across Detroit to provide in-person services, noted Bryan Peckinpaugh, a DWSD spokesman.
“We have not re-opened the (downtown) center and do not plan to do so,” Peckinpaugh said in an email.